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    Ebrahim Alkazi

    Map Academy

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    A pioneering figure of Modernism in the arts in post-Independence India, Ebrahim Alkazi is known to have shaped the cultural and institutional fabric of theatre, visual arts and art patronage. Born in Pune to a wealthy Arab family, he studied at St. Vincent’s High School, Pune and later migrated to Bombay (now Mumbai) to attend St. Xavier’s College. He was introduced to theatre through director Sultan Padamsee, when he joined his company Theatre Group. In 1945, he married Padamsee's sister, Roshen, who was a costume designer.

    In 1948, along with Roshen, headed to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). Upon finishing his education, he moved back to Bombay in 1951 and returned to the Theatre Group which he ran from 1950–54 and founded Theatre Unit (1954–62). He set up School of Dramatic Art at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, where he connected with artists from Bombay Progressive Artists’s Group — MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee Nasreen Mohamedi and VS Gaitonde — who were renting studio space in the complex. By working closely and collaboratively with his actors, he built comprehensive programs of education in the art of theatre steeped in a rigorous and disciplined practice. He was as concerned with reception as he was with production, viewing the ability to attract, cultivate and capture an audience as the real test of theatre. Through the course of a decade in Bombay, he built a significant audience and established himself as a serious practitioner of theatre. He had a close association with artists such as FN Souza and both MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta, at various points, had designed and painted sets for his theatrical productions. During the 1950s, he curated a series of eight exhibitions titled This is Modern Art at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, at a time when there wasn’t much space to exhibit and review contemporary art practice.

    In 1954, he was invited by the Indian government to prepare the blueprint for the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, and in 1962, he joined the school as its director. Under his fifteen-year-long directorship, a three year diploma course was introduced. Modelled in line with the course at RADA, London, it sought to institutionalise and modernise the study of theatre and its practice. He sought to provide young theatre practitioners with a strong base for their work and saw the classroom as an opportunity to transform theatre into a living process. In Alkazi’s pedagogical approach, a training in theatrical arts was not possible without a knowledge of its significant traditions and their histories, whether Indian, Western, non-Western, classical, modern and contemporary. Furthermore, he overhauled the syllabus so as to combine theory and practice, offering specialisations to the students such as a three-year course with the option of specialisation in acting or theatre design. He also designed two theatres for NSD: a 200-seater studio theatre and the permanent open-air Meghdoot Theatre.

    While in Bombay, he staged renditions of Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Chekov, August Strindberg, Molière and Federico García Lorca. In Delhi, he adapted to the city’s particular cultural landscape by focusing on building an audience among the Hindi-speaking middle-classes. He founded the NSD Repertory Company in 1964 and directed eighteen of its forty-eight productions. In Dharamvir Bharti’s anti-war play Andha Yug, he improvised an open theatre setting among the historic ruins of Delhi staging it at the fourteenth century site, Feroz Shah Kotla (1964) and at the sixteenth-century Purana Qila (1974). The 1963 production of Andha Yug, staged the year after India’s defeat in the Indo-Sino war presented the moral dilemmas of the time, and among its audience was the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Another landmark play was Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq staged at the Purana Qila 1974. The monumental backdrops and the vastness of an open-air setting showcased spectacular scenography. His dramatic adaptations of structures and spaces of historical importance altered the experience of spectatorship. Alkazi directed over fifty plays and exhibited a vast range, directing the works of both Indian and European playwrights. His inculcation of a Modernist Realist idiom in Hindi theatre had a lasting influence on productions across regions and languages.

    Alkazi also shaped a generation of actors and directors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, BV Karanth and Neelam Mansingh. At the end of his tenure in 1977, he committed himself to a variety of interests. With his wife, Roshen Alkazi, he set up the Art Heritage Gallery in the basement of Triveni Kala Sangam. Together, they commenced upon an active championing of arts — promoting, documenting, researching and collecting contemporary works of art at a time when the art market’s rise was unanticipated. They nurtured a mix of artists — KG Subramanyan, Arpita Singh, and Sudhir Patwardhan, among others. He made films on Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Somnath Hore and MF Husain; led a TV programme on Doordarshan on art criticism; and co-curated an exhibition with Geeta Kapur and Richard Bartholomew, India: Myth and Reality, at the Festival of India in the UK in 1982. He also took up collecting period photographs, amassing an extensive collection of over 80,000 rare photographs. In 2006, the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts was formally established as an archive.

    He received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Direction in 1962 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1967. His contributions to the field have been recognised by the government of India and he was honoured with a Padma Shri in 1966, Padma Bhushan in 1991 and Padma Vibushan in 2010. He received the first Tanvir Award by Roopwedh Pratishtan in 2004 for lifetime contribution to theatre. In 2012, he was awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France.

    Alkazi suffered a heart attack in August, 2020, at the age of 95, and passed away in New Delhi.


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